Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag recaptures the vivacity the franchise displayed with Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood. Brenna picks out two major improvements to a formula that finally feels fresh again.
After the disappointment of Assassin’s Creed 3, which sold and reviewed well but drew heavy criticism from fans, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag had the power to make or break the franchise. I tentatively believed that it would be a saviour, and as Dave has already eloquently argued, Ubisoft did a fantastic job of addressing Assassin’s Creed 3’s faults – most of the wrinkles have been ironed out of the controls and mechanics; the long boring tutorials with half your tools missing have been axed; and the loading times have been hugely reduced for both current and next-gen builds. I’m happy to call it the best Assassin’s Creed game since the first sequel, and even Pat likes it.
Since I started playing Black Flag on my PlayStation 4, sharing the occasional screenshot and video, lots of my friends have asked me if it’s worth picking up. My answer is always “It’s a lot better than Assassin’s Creed 3,” to which their reply has universally been some variation of “Good, because I really didn’t enjoy that one,” and then a long anecdote about which glitch, mission sequence, or feature put them off. As a hardcore fan of the series (Abstergo hoodie, eagle-peak hooded dressing gown, et cetera) I’m so pleased to be asked the question “Is it any good?” because it shows that positive hype is building, helping to countermand Assassin’s Creed 3’s poor reputation; I doubt any of my friends would have asked about Black Flag if they hadn’t had a glimmering that it represents a vast improvement.
When asked for details though, I start to flail around a bit – what exactly is it that makes Black Flag so good? The answer is sort of everything and nothing; so many systems have been fine tuned that instead of the frustrating, bland, fiddly experience of Assassin’s Creed 3, Black Flag is a sheer joy to play. Without compiling a bullet point list of all the things that I like, there are two factors which I believe make all the difference: environmental design and narrative design.
From the moment you’re first set loose on dry land in Black Flag, you’re somewhere interesting. The craggy, cliffy island Edward washes up on has multiple levels of verticality, caves, tunnels, and parallel paths. It’s laid out in such a way that you can run it in a few seconds, or spend up to an hour poking here and there, winkling out the secrets as they appear on your map. The game’s climbing and free-running systems are introduced not with laborious tutorials but simply by throwing you at a playground of them, and daring you to wonder “Can I get up there?” Yes, you can; and the gorgeous, colourful, organic design means climbing areas aren’t telegraphed by obvious patterns. The detail in each small area is astounding; imagine some artist at Ubisoft – or a team of artists, more like – carefully placing each rock, hummock of sand, tuft of grass, ambient animation, and cranny.
The first major settlement you visit, Havana, is a proper old-school Assassin’s Creed city; buildings stacked close together, lots of flat roofs, and a couple of great big religious buildings you’ll circle at least once before you figure out how to scale them. Dashing the rooftops here is a must for fans who’ve been with the Animus for some time, and such a welcome change after the broad streets and pitched roofs of the American cities in the last game.
Most of the other cities are smaller and more impermanent, but they’re also dotted with trees and points of interest, so there are more – and more varied – free-run paths than ever before. Kingston in particular stands out; it sprawls across two or three elevations, and has rivers and waterfalls. Skirting these towns to infiltrate restricted areas is great fun, as you uncover secret back paths and escape routes not featured in missions.
Add to this the unrivalled beauty of the environments – no matter the weather – and you have a setting that you long to explore, to get in and roam around in. Tracking down collectibles is far less of a chore when the environment is interesting, and areas designed for missions are carefully structured to provide direction without feeling restricted – and to give you plenty of options.
For the first time in ages, the story doesn’t keep interrupting your enjoyment of the world. The last few Assassin’s Creed games – especially Assassin’s Creed 3, but also Revelations and Brotherhood, and to a lesser degree Assassin’s Creed 2 – have been guilty of serious narrative crimes. it’s not the ridiculous sci-fi meta narrative, or the constant shoe-horning of historical figures; it’s just that Ezio and Connor, bless ’em, don’t do much besides take orders.
For the vast majority of Ezio’s adventures I seemed to be doing whatever the heck his mum, sister, or new pals wanted me to do, and Connor didn’t seem much better directed. Oh, they both had an overarching goal and ambition, but they seemed incapable of ever thinking up what to do about it. It was all, “Go meet this guy. He’ll know how to help you,” and after you’d recruited whoever it was, they’d have a whole sequence of chores for you to do, to further their own political ends and possibly mildly inconvenience the Templars. There seemed to be a huge disconnect between the elevator summary (“Assassin kills Templars, for revenge and also because they’re bad”) and the user experience (“Assassin kills loads of people and also does a lot of really dull stuff other people tell him to do, for various political reasons it would take weeks to explain in full”). I stopped listening, eventually – and I’m one of those who never skips cutscene and reads all the text files.
Black Flag, on the other hand, is always very clear about who you are and what you’re doing. Edward Kenway doesn’t have any personal revenge to enact; he just wants to get rich and not be told what to do. Nowadays he’d probably go into hip-hop but being a pirate is considerably more badass. Everything Kenway does is in line with his character, and eloquently explained to the player; the cutscenes and dialogue are mercifully short and clear. There’s none of the dissonance of “I am a badass pirate, why am I fetching somebody’s gloves?” and every question of “Why are we doing this, again?” boils down to “Because Edward wants something and this is directly making it happen”.
It helps that Edward, a black-hearted, sinning, thieving murderer, is extremely likeable and relatable. He doesn’t have Ezio’s charm or Connor’s angry dignity; what he has, from other characters, is well-earned respect. He’s a man to be feared, obeyed, and worked alongside with. It’s easy to enjoy being him. His pirate colleagues are a likeable bunch, too; Ubisoft has sensibly kept the core cast small, so you aren’t showered with names and faces, and because most of them are pirates it’s easy to tell them apart (the one with the black beard is Blackbeard, and the one that looks like a kid is James Kidd, and so on) because everyone has a terrific jacket. The voice acting’s quite superb, too.
An open world full of delightful nooks and crannies; a plot that takes no prisoners as it bustles ever forwards; and vastly improved technical execution. There really is a lot to love in Assassin’s Creed 4, and I intend to find all of it.